Top Tips for helping children handle parties

There is an assumption that children and parties go together like bread and jam. And parties are important for the social development of our children.

In many ways, children and parties do have a natural affinity – they both tend to be full of activity and noise, and they’re often somewhat chaotic, and usually quite exhausting!

Parties present a different world to children, a world where the rules are often very different and this can make it hard for them to know how to behave.

Some children don’t enjoy parties – and others enjoy them too much! Either can cause challenges for parents.

There is a wealth of information about how to organise a successful child’s party and plenty to say about whether or not creating a Fabulous Event for a 3 year old is appropriate. But for now we’re going to focus on how parents can make a party a success for the child themselves, helping them feel better, and behave better, and gain from the opportunities offered.

In our experience, these are the 3 main areas parents worry about – and some ideas about how you can help your child:


Nerves and reluctance to join in

Some children throw themselves in with abandon as soon as they arrive. Others hang back and find it hard to join in the merriment. Many children feel anxious or insecure in unknown situations, and this can be exacerbated if they are also to be separated from parents/caregivers. (Separation anxiety doesn’t just affect 18month-2 year olds – it comes in fits and starts, and often another peak is at 5-6 and at 7-8 years old.)

When it looks like our child is not going to join in, it can make us feel disappointed that they’re not going to enjoy themselves, particularly if we’ve made an effort to get there, or worried that they’re out of their depth and we’ve done something wrong, or we can’t help them or that they’ll grow up to be a social misfit!

Being the life and soul of the party is not for all of us! And most parents would choose “being a good friend” over “being a party-animal” for their child! If your child’s temperament means they are more cautious, and reserved, this doesn’t make them wrong- it’s just who they are and we need to accept and support them. Understanding our children’s temperament helps us find ways to help them. For example:

  • Talk with them beforehand about how they feel about parties – acknowledge that there is a pressure to enjoy parties, and empathise that parties can feel overwhelming. Wait for them to respond – and allow them to tell you if they don’t enjoy parties – some children are particularly sensorially sensitive and find the lights, noise and activity more stressful. You can empathise about worries they may have WITHOUT making them more worried. This might sound like: “I know you’re looking forward to Charlie’s party because he’s your friend, and I wonder if you’re also a bit worried about what’s going to happen at the party? Sometimes there is so much going on, and it’s loud and there are lots of people and it is hard to join in games….”
  • Discuss with them what friendship involves – it’s not all about playing games at parties and being a standout leader in a group- the ‘popular’ one. Friendship is also about being kind, sharing, and helping others. Encourage your child to see themselves as a good friend, even if they don’t like joining in noisy, boisterous activities. This might sound like: “I know Molly likes music and dancing, and they’re not your favourite things to do. You and she are good friends though – she loves coming here to play with your doll’s house, and spending time with you.”
  • Notice and descriptively praise any progress in the right direction – if your child watches the activities or games from a distance, clutching your hand, that’s better than running out of the room. Some children watch entire puppet shows or balloon displays from the doorway or stairs. At least they’re engaged, as far as they feel they can be, and they have created a great coping mechanism for themselves. Acknowledge them: “I see you’ve settled yourself down there where you feel comfortable. I think you want to watch the clown lady, and you want to make sure you can see your friends, even though you don’t want to sit with them.” One mum helped her child acclimatise to parties in small steps by letting her stand next to her and gradually helping her move closer to the action, until finally the girl said mum could leave!

Over-exuberance and not wanting to leave

Some children jump in feet first, and commit to having a full role in every aspect of the party and may even take over somewhat. And, with no sense of time, and no awareness of all the other things you have to do that afternoon/evening, they find it impossible to leave when they are asked.

  • Practice at home beforehand – do a role play of leaving the party and walk through with your child all the stages involved – from finding their coat, saying thank you to the host, and good-bye to their friends. Have some fun, you can even swap roles and let your child be the host and you can be the reluctant leaver. Role plays work well because they help children practice things they find hard in a safe, non-judgemental, non-pressured, supportive environment.
  • Plan something interesting (and calming!) to do afterwards – discuss and agree this with your child beforehand. When you arrive, you can empathise with their reluctance to leave – rather than make them feel wrong for wanting to stay – and gently remind (rather than nag or threaten!) them about the planned activity at home. This might sound like: “Gosh, you look like you’ve had lots of fun, and now it’s time to leave which isn’t so much fun, is it? Do you remember what we practiced? And what we’re going to do when we get home?”

The evening after the party…..

Once we’ve got home safely, it’s tempting to believe it’s all done and dusted.

Actually, it takes children a remarkably long time to calm down after the intensity of a party. After all the hype, nerves, adrenalin and sugar, it’s difficult for them to adjust to the order and expectations of the real world again.

The more tired they are, the harder it is for them to do anything – including going to sleep. Yet all we want to do is collapse into bed! This can mean we ourselves are not calm, and this doesn’t help.

Rather than pushing them to go to sleep earlier, it can help to start the wind-down to bedtime earlier and make time to do something smoothing and calming. Even if it means they go to bed at the same time as normal, they should fall asleep more peacefully and have a better night’s rest.

Ideas include: deep “sleepy” breathing, gentle massage, having candles/bubbles in the bath, reading favourite stories in your bed. When you’re reading it can help children relax if you gradually slow your voice down and lower the volume, making longer pauses between sentences. It might also help to stroke the child in a rhythm that matches your reading.

It may help to modify some rules or expectations about the evening to allow for the earlier mayhem – for example, if you usually require that your child puts their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, maybe you can do this for them. It doesn’t mean the rule is broken, it’s just the rule applies to “normal” days and doesn’t apply on party night! If you want to maintain any house-keeping rules, be prepared that they might be forgotten, not done so well, or done very slowly and grumpily!

Over all, it always helps us to look at things from our child’s perspective – in time they will be able to do this for you too. When we consider the experience they’ve had at the party, it’s not hard to see how they may crumble or explode later at home.

19/01/2012   No Comments

I want it and I want in now!

UNICEF UK recently released a report entitled Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism. The UK did not compare well with Spain and Sweden in terms of the wellbeing of children and the role of consumer products in their lives. “…in Spain and Sweden the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter productive to children’s well-being….Most children agreed that family time was more important to them than consumer goods, yet we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things for their children and for themselves. Boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics in the home were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often “pointless”, but seemed somehow pressurised and compelled to continue.”

It is real juggling act raising children in the 21st century (particularly in the UK it would appear), where instant gratification has become the norm, and status is defined by what we own. The shops and TV screens are full of enticements…. and everyone wants everything….. and they want it now!

As loving parents, we want to do our best for our children, but we are often unsure what that is in this materialistic world. We want them to have the best we can give, we want to show them how much we love them, and, at the same time, we want them to be appreciative of what they have and learn to value their possessions. Many parents are concerned about falling into the trap of over-indulging their children, fearing that their children will grow up to be overly acquisitive and never satisfied, unable to appreciate the true cost of things or differentiate between their needs and their wants.

So how can we instill in our children the values we want and we believe will equip them best for the future, and yet not always have to be the bad cop, saying no, no, no….?


There is one immediate and relatively simple way we can help our children.

We can protect them from the constant advertising which tells them that their value is tied up in what they own and that they need to acquire certain goods in order to fit in. We can limit their exposure to TV adverts by cutting down on screen-time, or using Sky Plus, and we can discuss with older children the role of advertising and the manipulation involved. Most kids like the idea of not being conned by the conglomerates!

And then it comes down to being clear and true to our values, and communicating this effectively to our children.

So, first, we need to establish what our values are. We need to ask ourselves why do we buy things for our children? It may be an uncomfortable question to answer honestly…. Is it because we believe everyone else is, and we don’t want them to feel left out? (The UNICEF report suggests that there are high levels of social insecurity in the UK which is compensated for by buying status brands.) Is it because we feel guilty about the amount of time we are able to spend with them as is also suggested in the UNICEF report? Is it because we want them to enjoy what we never had? Some parents interviewed for the UNICEF report suggested that they wanted status brands for their children to protect them from the kind of bullying they experienced themselves as kids. Do we buy because we can’t bear to see them unhappy? Is it because they pester so much that we can’t bear it and don’t know how to avoid giving in? In the heat of the moment do we lose sight of the reasons why it might not be a good idea for them to have what they are asking for? Do we think we’re being mean in denying them?

Having clarified our values, we now have to communicate them to our children and we can approach this on three levels.



Children learn by copying, so we can start involving them in purchasing decisions, showing them the link between earning and spending. This might sound like: “I’m not sure whether we need this now, perhaps it would be better to wait till next month.” Or “I really like those ipads. I’m going to put a bit of money aside each week until I’ve saved enough to buy one.” Or “These Nike trainers are really cool but they’re so expensive –these other ones will do just as well.” We can also model appreciation by being appreciative ourselves, and noticing and mentioning whenever they are. This might sound like: “I love it when you say thank-you for the things I do for you. It’s polite, and makes me feel really appreciated.” or “You’re taking really good care of your new train set –you put it away very carefully in its box each time you’ve finished with it.”

And, we can set up systems so that our children earn the privileges that many of them believe they have as a right, simply because they are alive – whether that is TV or other electronics, outings, play-dates or material possessions. Children appreciate things they have earned for themselves, for good behaviour, more than things they are just given.



Before we set out for a shopping expedition, we need to manage our children’s expectations beforehand with a chat-through.

In a chat-through, we want our children to be doing most of the talking, to avoid lecturing or nagging and having them feel too controlled, but we can start with an explanation about why we’re having the chat-through. This might sound like: “It’s important to me that you learn about the cost of things and their value, and how to appreciate the good things you have”.

Then we ask them questions – what will happen in the shop, what amount will be spent, on what items, why, what behaviour is expected, and how might the child feel….They need to do the talking if they are to be committed to what needs to happen. It is important to empathise that the child may feel really tempted, disappointed or frustrated at the change in policy, aware that other children may have the things they covet…. We can ask how the child could handle these feelings – some ideas include telling the parent, writing down the items the child wishes she could buy, using some safe venting technique like stamping feet or pounding their fists. It’s really important we don’t make our children wrong for being tempted by the appealing things on the shelves. After all a lot of thought and money is spent by companies seeking to entice them.



However well the chat-through went, the child may be unable to resist and revert to the old pestering ways.

When this happens, we need to keep calm – remembering children feel things very intensely in the moment but these feelings pass, and remembering too that it is not our job to keep them happy in the moment; instead it is our job to enable them to make themselves happy in the future, by developing self-control and problem-solving skills.

So we can empathise with our children, imagining how they are feeling and reflecting it back to them in words. This is the first step in helping our children understand and manage their feelings. This might sound like: “You wish you could buy that car. You really like it because it’s really shiny and it’s got cool tires. You’re really sad that Mummy said we can’t buy anything today. Maybe you think I’m being mean. You know what? I’m proud of you for only making a little fuss about this. I know you’re really disappointed. It’s hard not to be able to have something you really want.”

Although this may not result in an immediate improvement in behaviour, it does show the child that they are understood and their feelings are accepted, even though their behaviour needs to be re-directed.

We can also give ‘wishes in fantasy’. This means we accept what they want and imagine what it would be like if they could have it. It’s an interesting distraction and can help make light of a potentially heavy moment, without making the child or his feelings seem silly. This might sound like: “I bet you would like to have every single piece of lego in the whole world – gosh, I wonder how big a box we would need to hold it all? I don’t think we would be able to lift it up!”

Overall, it pays to take time to prepare and train ourselves and our children how best to cope with life in today’s modern world. It may help to bear the following in mind from Dr. Phil McGraw, a psychologist and author:

Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told “no.” But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled.”

19/01/2012   No Comments

Top Tips for Surviving Long Car Journeys

For many of us, our families and friends no longer live locally, but some distance away. And with all these lovely sunny bank holiday weekends approaching over the next few months, this is the ideal time to pack up the car, pack up the kids, and get away to spend some valuable time with loved ones.It sounds such a great idea, until you start to think about the long car journey crawling down the motorway, listening to the squawks and whines in the back of the car. Then we start thinking about them saying “Are we nearly there yet?” and “I need a wee-wee” and suddenly staying at home seems a much better idea.It’s not – getting away for a break, and spending time with family and friends, is too valuable an opportunity to be lost.



Time your journey as smartly as possible

We all know when the roads are busiest, so see if you can be creative about the time you leave and travel. It will be well worthwhile leaving earlier or later than usual – the roads will be quieter, and if the children are usually asleep at this time, it may well be quieter in the car too! If the children are small, wrap them up in their pyjamas and fill your thermos flask. Alternatively, give them a good run around before the start of the journey to expend some energy.

Plan some stops

Regular stops are not just good for the children, they’re good for you too. Check out on the map or route planner where you can pull off the road every couple of hours and have a run around, and revive yourselves for the next stage.

Pack some emergency supplies

Include baby wipes, plastic bags, calpol sachets, emergency snacks, water bottles, a travel potty may also be helpful! It may be worth taking a spare set of clothes, depending on whether it matters what you look like when you get there….



Allocate time to various activities

Apportion a set time for different activities – for example, during a 2-hour journey you could have ½ hour for looking out of the window and chatting, ½ hour of games, ½ hour for a packed lunch and ½ hour of stories on the disc player or ipod.

Get as comfortable as possible

Take a pillow or folded up blankets to put under knees or behind necks.

Divide and conquer

Keep as much space as possible between siblings in the back – the closer they are, the feistier they can get. Try a physical boundary like a bag or pillow, or the picnic box between them. Consider rotating children around so everyone gets a turn behind Mummy or by the window or in the back row….

Games for the car

A recent survey showed that, despite all the modern technology that’s available, most families still also play the traditional games in the car, from I-Spy to naming the capital cities or major rivers of Europe. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Yes and No – everyone take turns to ask any questions of one person, but they can’t reply with yes or no or they are out! (For example “Are you sitting next to Rosie?”)
  • Granny’s Knickers – everyone asks one person a question to which they have to respond with the answer “Granny’s Knickers” regardless of the question, without giggling! (For example “What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour?”)
  • Alphabet Spotting – take turns to name something you can see from the car beginning with a, b, c, d etc.
  • Make A Story – take it in turns to construct a sentence each to make up a nonsense story.
  • Chocolate or cheese – each person takes turns to ask the question “If you had to choose between the following, which one would you choose?” For example, chocolate or cheese, or perhaps being able to fly or become invisible!
  • The 1 Minute Game – choose any topic and talk about it for one minute.
  • My Granny Went To Market – one person starts with “My Granny went to market and she bought a…..” and then you take it in turns to remember the whole shopping list! Be as silly as you like…
  • Car Snooker – first spot a red car for one point, then either a yellow, green, brown, blue, pink or black then back to another red car and repeat until all the colours have to spotted in order! (The pink ones will take some time!)
  • Word Linking – think of a theme, fairly broad, like animals or food, and whoever starts chooses an example, say cat, and the next person has to think of another example starting with the last letter of the one before, in this case t. Have a plan for words ending in y in particular!
  • Backseat Bingo – prepare some grids on pieces of paper before you set off, and fill in with words or pictures of the things you expect to see out of the window – blue car, lorry, bridge, telephone box, zebra crossing, sheep, police car etc. Everyone ticks them off as they see them and when they have a full sheet they call out “Bingo!”
  • Landmark Spotting – similar to Bingo, prepare a simple map of the route and mark out the major sites or towns which can be ticked off on the way.
  • Who Am I – one person imagines a character from a favourite story or show, or history, and the others have to ask questions to guess who it is – are you a boy, are you a girl, have you got 4 legs, do you use a wand, are you an alien, are you a baddie etc.
  • Sponsored silence –seems so obvious now you think about it!



Just when you thought it was all over…….

Do remember that the children will probably fall out of the car when you arrive, either full of energy, sugar and thoroughly over-excited, or groggy, car-sick and nervous. Either way, plan for some transitional activity – whether that’s running up and down stairs or forming a fireman’s chain to deliver bags, or sitting quietly in the corner reading a book.

Overall, it’s safety first. We can NOT simply expect our children to understand what it is like to drive a car, let alone drive with fighting and arguing going on in the back.

But we can explain it to them beforehand – not angrily or resentfully, but gently and respectfully. We tell them that we have to look in mirrors, make signals, use pedals, judge speeds, guess distances, anticipate other people – as well as steer the car. And we can explain they need to keep the noise to a reasonable level – some parents use a “noise meter” where Levels 1-2 are fine, 3 is the absolute maximum and 4-5 is danger zone. Practice it beforehand!

Once in the car, while they are at Level 1-2, make sure you notice and say something! “Thanks guys, you’ve got the noise level just right – I can concentrate and keep us safe, and you can hear each other too!”. Then if it gets noisier, rather than suddenly shouting to them from the front, just refer to the “noise meter” along the lines of “Uh oh, we’ve reached Level 3, so just be careful”.

Ultimately, if the noise does reach a point that you can’t drive safely, don’t drive. Pull over. Explain that it’s too noisy for you to drive right now, so you need to stop. Rather than haul them out and tell them off, get out yourself, take some deep breaths and count slowly to whatever it takes.

When you get back into the car, perhaps you can start with a “sponsored silence” game for a while!

19/01/2012   No Comments

Top Tips for Managing Morning Mayhem

One of the most common causes of parental stress is what we call ‘morning mayhem’. Parents often report to us that they have awful mornings where they wind up screaming at their children, nagging and making wild threats. By the time they drop their children off at nursery or with the child minder they regularly feel guilty and the children are often upset or withdrawn. By putting a bit of time, thought and effort into making changes and by applying the methods below parents find their mornings are transformed.

  • Allow more time. Children can find transitions (ie moving from one activity to another) hard. They operate on a very different tempo from adults and rushing them always ends in disaster
  • Do as much as possible the night before
  • Stay focussed on getting the children to do what’s required. When we take our eye off the ball (eg making just a quick phone call) things tend to go ‘pear-shaped’. This often means getting up a bit earlier to get yourself ready first. (Nobody likes this suggestion!)
  • Have written or pictorial routines so everyone knows what has to be done and so you remember what to praise the children for.
  • Talk through with the children as soon as they get up what has to be done. Ask them questions: ‘What do you need to do before we go downstairs?’ Once we’ve had breakfast what needs to be done?’ Praise them for their answers. Even if they’re not correct you can praise the child for taking a guess.
  • Be there while your children are doing what they have to do and praise your children for little steps in the right direction (rather than waiting for the whole task to be completed) ‘Olivia, you have one sock on already and you put it on all by yourself’’. This is much more motivating for children than nagging and chivvying.
  • Empathise with the child who finds it difficult to get going in the morning or has not yet developed good organisational habits or who just isn’t interested in the task at hand. ‘I know you find it hard to concentrate on getting dressed when you’d rather be playing with your train set. You can earn 10 minutes of train-playing after breakfast by getting dressed quickly.’
  • Some children suffer particularly from low blood sugar levels and need to be fed quickly. Some are easily distracted and are best dressed away from the toys in their rooms.
  • Brainstorm with the kids for strategies for dealing with difficult situations. ‘How do you think we can make mornings more fun?’
  • Time events so that good things follow less favourite things eg getting dressed, tidying up, eating breakfast comes before any playtime. We recommend you don’t use TV as a reward in the mornings.

19/01/2012   No Comments

Halloween Horrors!!!

Are your children excited about all the Halloween trick – or- treating? Do they adore dressing up? Or are they fearful at the thought of venturing out in the dark night and encountering all the scary ghoulish faces. Many children under the age of 6 have difficulty divorcing reality from fantasy so for many of our younger children this truly can be a night of horrors.

In addition many  of us as parents are confused about what Halloween represents as a festival  and may worry about the pagan or Christian origins of All Hallows Eve being taken over for commercial purposes. Relax – for the children this day is about dressing up, being with friends and the age long tradition of collecting sweeties and telling jokes! (The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the  Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. On Hallowmas (November 1) the poor would go door to door receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day, (November 2).)

Here are some top tips to make Halloween a success:

Talk to your children about what may be frightening them – is it the costumes; the scary masks; the symbols or images of blood and gore? Make sure they get that you are listening and understanding and not treating their fears as if they are silly or babyish. Once a child feels heard and his feelings validated he is in a far better place to look for solutions.

  1. If you need to take a young reluctant child along with older ones let him know you will support him, holding his hand or whatever else he needs to feel safe. Keep reminding him that there are real people under the costumes and if you know who then name them.
  2. The costumes sold on the high street can be very scary so let your child decide what he is going to dress up as. If he wants to be Batman or a Power Ranger then let him be……..  Equally if he is happy to dress as a devil/monster for the night then again let him do so and be assured this does not mean all his  belief systems about what is right and wrong will be threatened. Research indicates that children who are able to dress in scary costumes are more likely to overcome their fears and be more resilient.
  3. If your child is nervous about trick-or-treating, then set up for success by enlisting the help of a few friendly neighbours who know you are going to visit. Start well before dark and ensure you have some of your children’s friends by your side to help them get into the festive spirit.
  4. If trick-or treating is really out of the question, then invite people to the house for a Fancy dress party with Halloween food and games. Children feel safer and secure in their own home and by involving them with Pumpkin carving and house decorating they will feel successful and involved.

Ultimately the key lies in listening to your child’s fears – they are very real and let him decide how much/little he wants to participate. Be aware that for children with sensory sensitivities the sounds, smells and feel of everything different may send them spinning. So have empathy – they may be HAVING a problem not BEING a problem and if we tell him to “grow up and stop being a baby” and “face his fears” they will feel very misunderstood and learn it is not right to be afraid. Over time your child will learn with the right support to deal with his anxieties and fears and become more resilient.

Halloween is here to stay – commercially it becomes bigger each year. You may choose not to take part but if you do, explain to your children what are your values that prevent you from joining in and empathise if they would like to do what many of their friends are doing. If you do choose to take part to make it a success requires a little planning.

Your child may not be fearful at all and look forward to trick or treating and getting sweets. You may need to remind them (by asking the children) about what to say at the door of participating neighbours (only call on those households who are participating-decorations are a good indicator) and to say thank you. To avoid sugar overdosing you may also need to establish some rules ahead of time about how many sweets can be consumed on the night and thereafter. The whole experience can be very exciting so be prepared for it to take time to wind down. Start the whole evening with plenty of time to do the trick or treating round and get home in time for a wind down and maybe a hot milky drink before bed.

Enjoy your ‘guising’ and ‘souling’ and your pumpkin carving and wrap up warmly!


31/10/2011   1 Comment

The Grateful Letter

Descriptive Praise in Action


At The Parent Practice we have many parents who never cease to amaze us with simple ideas that have a long-reaching, positive impact on the relationship they have with their children.

One Mum recently emailed us with a grateful letter that she intended to include with her soon-to-be 8 year old’s birthday card.  This wasn’t just any old letter.  This was a heartfelt testament (full of descriptive praise) to the year her son had just completed: the milestones he achieved; the new skills he learned; his new friendships; the frustrations and the overcoming of those frustrations; the enhanced relationships with his brothers; even his height and shoe size at the beginning of the year.  Some of us  have kept baby books where we keep track of all the firsts – teeth, steps and words – but we usually stop by the time our children start school if not before.  It is a wonderful idea to continue to keep a record and celebration of their lives.

This Mum is beautifully participative in her son’s life – not overbearing – but present in a way in which she can observe and note down (her son is oblivious until he receives the card) things that may at first seem mundane, but actually are important moments in the life of a child.  Here’s an excerpt:

We are grateful that you are growing so independent

in the mornings… always dressed and downstairs by

7am, getting your own breakfast and setting the table

for everyone else. For the pride you take in doing up

your new school tie, and the way you make your own

bed every day without reminders. For accepting the

new ‘no Wii on a school day’ rule with good grace… but

playing it like a madman at the weekends.


We are grateful for your strong will … for never backing down

which is both infuriating and admirable. For your desire to

win and be the best, and how mad it makes you when you

lose.  For finding it impossible to say sorry out loud, but then

spontaneously writing a beautiful and sincere letter of apology.

For trying so hard to control your anger and getting frustrated

when it is sometimes the hardest thing to do.

He must start his birthday each year on such a high!  This particular year he will be reminded not just that he is deeply loved, but also that he is independent, cooperative, contributing, proud, disciplined, determined and sincere – all qualities that we hope to instill in our children.  We love the honesty of the letter: the Mum isn’t wearing rose-coloured glasses, but rather she takes aspects of her child’s behaviour that could infuriate her, and sees them in a positive and caring way – enabling her son to know that he is appreciated for who he is.  We imagine that her son is left knowing that being determined, for example, can be a good quality!

We hope that reading this letter doesn’t leave you feeling inadequate or beaten at the competitive game parenting can be but instead inspires you to create something similar for your child.  It would be wonderful for them as teenagers and adults to be able to re-read an accurate record of their lives. We like the idea of excerpts being read out (with laughter and tears) one day at a 21st or wedding reception!

So, how do we do it?  The Mum who sent us her letter has it down to an art!  She jots down notes on the ‘notes’ app on her iPhone and pulls them all together at the end of the year.  The writing down seems like it will be the easy part!  The more challenging aspect will be taking the time to participate, observe, and truly connect with your children as they grow up.  Although it will take time we suspect it will be time you will enjoy and will help you see your child in a truly positive light.


20/10/2011   No Comments

Rioting British youths failed by their own parents? It takes a village…

Britons and people across the world have been mesmerised by the riots that took place recently in London and other cities and have been scrabbling for some sort of explanation for what went on, what motivated the rioters and, it seemed to me, searching for someone to blame. I was sorry to see that one of the knee jerk reactions as we try to make sense of this frightening occurrence in our own neighbourhoods was a spate of parent bashing and blaming.

There have been as many theories about the causes of the violence as there were people who took part in it. But there is no one explanation that has convinced me as applying to all who took part. The causes attributed seem to depend on who are identified as the perpetrators. If the rioters were unemployed, uneducated, fatherless, estate-living, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds then commentators have claimed that it is the socio economic climate in which we live currently that has given rise to this spate of violence. But many of the looters were not from this demographic but were middle class, older people in employment. There were teachers, dental nurses and ballerinas who took part. Many of these people were female, educated and in employment. Some of the young were living in stable homes with two caring parents. Many of us will have heard interviews with ‘hoodies’ who claim to have joined in for the fun of it and because they could get away with it.

Whatever the disparate socio economic and ethnic backgrounds of the people taking part in the rioting and looting maybe one thing that unites them is a sense of powerlessness in their lives that compels them to seize control in this way. One youth was quoted as saying “We wanted to show the police we could do what we wanted.” The other uniting feature, as many commentators have mentioned, is the moral vacuum we have witnessed. Whatever the circumstances of their lives, whatever hardships they may be enduring, whatever frustrations or privations, these don’t justify taking the action they did, causing the damage they did, taking the lives they did. So what is missing? Some of the people taking part seemed to just get caught up in the atmosphere of the mob without any predetermined idea of causing violence or stealing. But why did they give way to the thrust of the crowd? Where is the value system that tells a person when to stop and decide not to join the throng? Why wasn’t there an overriding compulsion that made them put the brakes on and think about how their actions impacted on others? How do you get those values? Clearly from one’s up-bringing. Allison Pearson has written in the Telegraph, “Our young people need adults to stop abdicating authority.”

While it is true that we need parents to behave like adults and to be in charge there are wide differences of opinion about what this means. Pearson quoted her neighbour as saying “They need a smacked bottom and to be sent to bed early”. Generally when people say “what that child needs is some discipline” they mean this kind of punitive approach but this is pendulum thinking where we assume that the alternative to this kind of flagrant permissiveness is clamping down hard with punishment. And if we conclude that there are social factors at work here which facilitated the recent lawlessness then we will not be effective in just bringing down sanctions without addressing those social factors.

In any case there is a more effective middle ground involving parents setting and upholding boundaries, taking an interest in and being responsible for their children and being willing to be the parent not the friend.  My view is that there is a crisis of parenting when the adults are not in charge, when they don’t know where a 12 year old is, when they have not been able to pass on values about respect for others, when they have not taught compassion and tolerance, when the young people don’t have the communication skills necessary to get what they need without violence, when they don’t have a proper education.

Not all the young people who took part in the violence have been brought up badly. Some of them may have got caught up in the moment and displayed a real lack of judgment in doing so and they need to be shown that there are consequences for that behaviour. Some parents are bravely doing just that. Chelsea Ives, 18 year old and promising athlete, took part in the rioting and was seen on television by her parents who took the courageous step of turning her into the police. And other parents have taken similar steps to teach their children responsibility for their actions.

But where there has been a failure to educate young people in good values and responsibility I think we have to be careful where we lay the blame for that. It is too easy to say what parents should be doing, especially when we’re pointing the finger at another set of parents, not ourselves. We need to take responsibility as a community for what has happened and think holistically about how we can support parents to bring up the next generation better. However difficult I think we need to try to get to the why’s of what happened so we can take effective action rather than just shooting in the dark like tough punishment and bringing in the army. And we need more data before we can analyse accurately what happened. Just as when we’re disciplining our kids at home we need to take time to understand why they did the thing we didn’t want them to do so that we can respond effectively.

The phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ hasn’t had much application in modern Britain but it needs to now. If one good thing comes out of this maybe it will be that in the spirit of the cleaning up that took place after the riots, that sense of taking back control of our communities, we look out for our neighbours more and help each other to bring up good kids. That might be in direct ways by offering to look after a neighbour’s child to give them a break, or being a male ‘uncle’ figure in the life of a fatherless child, or it might be having the courage to tell a teen to take their feet off the seat on the bus. Or maybe our actions will be to lobby government in this time of austerity measures to not make cuts in the vital area of providing parenting support so that parents have the tools to be able to get their kids to school, get them off the streets, give them the values they want to pass on and teach them respect. Nothing will change if we just mutter about the state of moral collapse in our society and point the finger of blame at parents who are not coping.

17/08/2011   1 Comment

Lessons from the Wimbledon Fortnight

One of the perks of living in London is the opportunity to attend world-class events.  Recently I was lucky enough to be at Wimbledon’s Center Court for the final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.  Djokovic won in 4 sets, and he was the deserving winner.  He simply played better tennis on the day.

Athletes can be a tremendous inspiration; providing lessons in how to be at the top of their game and remaining confident, yet also maintaining humility.  Rafael Nadal summed it up so beautifully in his speech following his defeat by Djokovic.  He said:

“First I would like to congratulate Novak and his team for his victory today and his amazing season.  It wasn’t possible [for me] today in this final. I tried my best as always. Today one player played better than me.  I will try another time next year.”

Here’s what I like about what he captured in those short sentences:

  1. Djokovich won, Nadal lost and Nadal can still be happy for Djokovich and what he accomplished.
  2. He acknowledged that he was beaten by the better player on the day.  He says that he played his best, and he understands that on that particular day, his best wasn’t good enough to win.
  3. That he will leave the court with an increased commitment and motivation to learn from his loss; to look at what he could have done differently; and to refine his game and improve so that July 2012 might see a different result!

Apparently one of the things players see before heading on to Center Court is the classic Rudyard Kipling poem If

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same

This is such an important lesson to instill in our children.  The ability to win with grace and humility and the ability to lose in the same way.  Defeat can lead to (at least) two outcomes: it can shut you down so you no longer want to try; or, you see it as a source of inspiration.  Defeat can be the opportunity to take stock with what you have achieved, re-clarify and re-commit to your goals and take some time to refine your skills.

Yesterday’s match demonstrated that, for Nadal, doing your best is not the same as (in that particular match) being the best.  While doing your best might not result in a first or second place finish, it will always provide an opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses and see them both as things to learn from and improve upon.

29/07/2011   No Comments

Wimbledon Fortnight – it’s all fun and games for our children!

Have you ever had the experience where your child says they are bored and there is nothing to do? Or indeed the situation where a simple family game of cards dissolves into hysteria and tantrums if your child does not win? Simply playing sport or other games can sometimes be fraught with emotion for both parent and child. Encouraging simple creative play from an early age can often be a minefield as parents are bombarded with a n overwhelming array of educational toys – largely electronic, with an amazing range of batteries and buttons. The marketing gurus cleverly stamp a package as “Award Winning Toy” encouraging parents to buy with the implication they will have as a result an “award winning child”. This preconditioning starts early and moves with the development of your child into the more sophisticated area of Nintendo Ds; Playstations and Xbox’s. Electronic toys are largely about children executing tasks and play therefore becomes based on performance and not imagination. The manufacturers may just as well put a health warning on the box saying” creativity and imagination not included in this package!”

Another on going problem for many parents is that as children develop in age, there can be a temptation to fill children’s free time with many organised activities and entertainment often designed to add to their list of accomplishments. Indeed we do live in a culture of organised play, as the pressure to maximize every moment is enormous, especially as time together between parent and child may be compromised. The result can often be children who, when left to their own devices, may not know what to do. We don’t want fun to be seen by our children as commercialised and yet so often this can be the case .

The solutions to the above are so simple as to be overlooked:

  • For the younger children, go back to the old fashioned games of “Simon says”, ‘musical bumps’ and “I spy” to encourage not only physical movement but listening skills and language  processing. Action rhymes such as “Row, row, row the boat” soon become children’s’ favourites and enable them to focus on words and actions and learn about processing two part instructions.
  • For the older child, focus on engaging them in adult activities such as cooking; cleaning; ironing, washing the car as well as playing games. Depending on age and stage of development they may not be able to concentrate for long, but often you find these activities actually inspire creative play and the added benefit to you is you encourage self reliance early on!

In terms of playing competitive games and sports, many life skills are required in order to be successful and enjoy taking part. We need to teach and train our children to:

  • Follow rules and instructions
  • Use self control
  • Handle their feelings
  • Consider other people’s feelings
  • Look for solutions and develop strategies for dealing with problems

Set up opportunities to practice the above skills by playing sport and other games. (This also provides opportunities for positive time with your children which contributes to a positive relationship with them, improves their motivation to please and increases their self-esteem.)

  1. Before the game starts ask your child what the rules are or what they must do in detail.
  2. Ask them or suggest to them what feelings they might have if they win or if they lose.
  3. What might they feel like doing when they win/lose? What behaviour is required if they win or if they lose?
  4. Empathise that they might prefer to skip this conversation and get on with the game.
  5. During the game descriptively praise the behaviour you want to encourage – choose from: self-control, taking turns, stopping when a physical game gets too rough, not hurting physically or verbally, not complaining or storming off, kindness, consideration, tolerance especially re younger siblings, helpfulness, following instructions/rules and anything else that occurs to you.
  6. 6. Conspicuously model the desired behaviour (i.e. talk about what you’re doing) e.g. “Oh no I’ve picked up a bad card but I’m not going to make a fuss and I’m going to carry on playing the game. Maybe I’ll get good cards next time.” Or “Oops that wasn’t a good shot. I’m going to practice my goal shooting so I’ll get better at it.”
  7. Acknowledge that it’s hard when the game isn’t going your child’s way or he’s not playing skillfully. (e.g. can’t get the ball in the basketball hoop). “It can be hard to keep going when it doesn’t come easily at first. It takes self discipline.”

And finally when your child returns home from their cricket or rounders match resist the temptation to ask “Did you win?” replacing it first with “Did you enjoy yourself? And then “did you play your best?” or “did you manage to keep your eye on the ball the way you’ve been practicing” or “Did the coach have any good tips?”

01/07/2011   No Comments


Some of you will have recently celebrated Easter with all its attendant rituals. Whether you are Christian or religious or not there are always rituals surrounding holidays and special occasions. At Easter time there are eggs, of a chocolate variety or otherwise, and whether or not the significance of the egg matters many families will have engaged in Easter egg hunts. Many of you will spend such holidays with families or go back to the same place year in, year out. We have always gone to my husband’s family home in Dorset for Easter and when the children were little we started the ritual of Easter egg hunts which involved the children following clues to find their treasure –we like to make them work for their sugar fixes! As they got older this became quite a burden for the adults as we had to devise bigger and better clues and not always hide the eggs in the same place. One year we resorted to our scanty knowledge of the foreign languages the children were learning at school. My grown up children are now involved in devising the clues for the younger ones thank goodness. However there was no suggestion that we could abandon this practice because that was what we’d always done. Any suggested variation in this or other routines is always met with howls of protest.

When Prince William married Katherine Middleton their very public wedding which was watched by so many around the world brought to mind another set of practices. The customs and ceremonies around marriage will of course vary in different cultures but all cultures will have some established conventions. The bride often wears white, there is usually a bouquet of flowers, an exchange or giving of one ring and an exchange of vows. These kinds of rituals are shared by whole cultures. But within families there are often rituals which are uniquely their own, routine ways of doing things around mealtimes or bedtimes or travel, idiosyncratic phrases or family sayings or how birthdays are celebrated for instance. Maybe Dad always sits in his chair; Mum always drives; when Dad comes home the kids always race to greet him at the door; the bedtime routine is bath, stories, cuddles and talk, lights out; everyone sings on long car journeys; the Sunday morning ritual is breakfast in Mum and Dads bed with the newspapers etc, etc.  I always think of my grandfather when I use phrases that he used such as waking my sons in the morning with ‘How’s my bonny boy?’ –hardly unique but I can hear his voice when I say it. He also called me tuppence because I was number two in the family and now my brother calls his second daughter tuppence which I love.

Some practices will be more important than others. My children have long said about certain family practices like dressing the Christmas tree that they will always do things like this with their children. Clearly rituals and routines are loved because of their familiarity and we know that children flourish on routine. I work in a centre for troubled adolescents and they are thriving on a recent increase in structure. They know where they stand and what is expected of them. Most children prosper when there are clear expectations upheld with certainty and consistency. Familiar rituals can provide comfort when things are upsetting.

Rituals are specific to certain communities or families so when we participate in those little rites we show we belong to that community. That sense of belonging is very important to our happiness. Family traditions can also help pass on specific values to your children. In my family when we celebrate a birthday we sing happy birthday and then have the usual 3 cheers but then we also say ‘and one for the umpire’ which is met with a boo! Not sure that’s a value I really meant to pass on to my kids.

Ritualising certain practices will help them become habits. So it’s a good idea to brush your teeth at the same time and in the same place every day. Likewise parents who want to remember to praise their children more find it helps to do it at a set time each day such as mealtimes or bedtimes. It can be part of the bedtime routine to praise your child and ask them to think of things that they are proud of or good things that happened that day. Some families have praise books which they write in each evening. My husband and I write down one thing we want to appreciate the other for every night and have found it creates a wonderful bond and an atmosphere of trust and feeling cherished between us.

You will probably already have your some of own rituals but we recommend you develop further family rituals to create a sense of togetherness and the feeling of comfort and security that certainty brings and to get into good habits. You might like to consider the following:

  • Games you play (we have had hilarious evenings playing charades)
  • Special hugs
  • Code words or signals
  • Morning routines (pleasant ones!)
  • Making scrapbooks
  • Baking
  • Friday Family Fun night with movies and popcorn (my bother’s family has a dress theme)
  • Cooking together
  • Conversations at mealtimes can be started with topic suggestions ( a good aid is the game called Table Topics)


15/05/2011   No Comments